The Origins of Netanyahu’s “All-Systems Assault” on Israeli Democracy

Several months ago, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history took power. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the coalition has put forward legislation that severely limits the powers of the judiciary. For several weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in Tel Aviv and other cities to rally against what they view as a grave risk to their democratic institutions. At the same time, the government is overseeing—and encouraging—brutal attacks by settlers on Palestinians. (At least fourteen Israelis and more than sixty Palestinians have been killed since the fighting flared this year.) Even a pretense of pursuing peace seems to have evaporated; the new government has announced “guidelines” declaring its intent to “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel.” Netanyahu, despite being a paragon of the Israeli right, is now more moderate than most of his cabinet, which is full of extremists such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national-security minister, and Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister who has been given a role supervising settlement policy. (My colleague Ruth Margalit recently profiled Ben-Gvir for the magazine.)

To understand what is happening in Israel and what the protests mean for its political future, I recently spoke by phone with Dahlia Scheindlin, an analyst and policy fellow at Century International, and also a columnist for Haaretz. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the different strains of the Israeli right joined forces in the latest government, the distinct threats that the government poses to the country’s democratic norms, and how much of Israel’s current course was inevitable in light of its failure to end the occupation.

What do you think is happening today in Israel? How would you describe it?

I think of it as the culmination of long-term forces that have created deep weaknesses and flaws in Israeli democracy, to the point of them being structural flaws. The structure has never been strong, and has always been compromised. But, during the last decade, we saw an acceleration of very anti-democratic trends, both in legislation and in a deepening of the occupation. What we’re seeing now has completely burst the banks. The government is waging an all-systems assault on the judiciary first, but also numerous other areas of Israeli society.

What are the long-term and short-term causes of this “all-systems assault”?

The immediate ones are the confluence of interests between a Prime Minister who needs to undermine Israel’s democratic institutions, particularly law enforcement, because he’s trying to weaken the corruption cases against him and because he wants to stay in power. To do that, he has to legitimize other political allies, who are either corrupt themselves and need the kind of legislation that helps keep corrupt people in power, which would require weakening the courts, or he simply needs to give them what they want for their own agenda. These are short-term political interests that he has because of his situation, combined with what I consider much deeper commitments to the ideological agendas of his coalition partners.

The ideological agendas of his coalition partners are very clear. They want a more religious and theocratic society. They want complete and permanent control over as much of the West Bank as they can have, and they want Israel to retain effective control over the perimeters of Gaza. They don’t ever want there to be Palestinian self-determination. They believe in Biblically granted Jewish sovereignty. And they also believe that Jews should be the privileged class in Israel and have higher status. They’re simply not as committed to citizen equality, and they’re happy to weaken the already weak basis for citizen equality among Israelis. The three major ideological goals of the coalition partners are: annexations, theocracy, and inequality. Combine that with Netanyahu’s expedient need to legitimize corruption, which requires weakening the judiciary. It’s a perfect storm.

I want to make it clear that I do not think that Likud is off the hook for these ideological commitments, either. Likud has made a firm decision as to which of its values to prioritize. Likud, historically, was a party that wanted Greater Israel, like most of the parties that have governed the country, but it combined that with aspects of a liberal party and liberal democratic values. [“Greater Israel” refers to the idea that Israel’s borders would include all of the territory where Palestinians currently live.] Netanyahu essentially nurtured the forces that abandoned liberal values. And then Likud, under his leadership, became a party that has committed itself to undermining anything such as compromising on a partition of the land, or Palestinian statehood. He’s made it very clear, and his own party made a resolution in 2017, that they support annexation of settlements in parts of the West Bank. There is not any sense that Israel shouldn’t be governing another population, and undermining their self-determination. And a number of figures within Likud that Netanyahu has actively supported and nurtured have made common cause with the most illiberal, populist kinds of policies and legislative agendas. Again, I think it’s because it’s served him. In the past, he could position himself as somebody who restrained those forces by convincing everybody that he balanced a hard-line nationalism with a tempering commitment to liberal democracy.

If we’re talking about long-term causes, is Israeli democracy internally being eroded directly because of the occupation? Do all these forces arise because of an inability or an unwillingness by Israel to fundamentally make peace and end the occupation?

The occupation certainly has caused one of the biggest contradictions to democracy. It was inevitable, as some predicted early on, that it would undermine the democratic foundations of Israel. Having said that, I’ve been researching this because I’m finishing a book right now on the history of Israeli democracy, and one of my major observations and conclusions is that the problems with democracy in Israel started long before the occupation. The most accessible example is the fact that Israel was unable to pass a constitution, which it was required to do under U.N. Resolution 181, known as the partition plan of 1947. Israel committed itself to that, in its own declaration of independence.

Based on my reading of the historic documentation, I have very little doubt that the country intended to, that the leadership intended to, but they were unable to. And the reason they were unable to was a combination of undemocratic forms of governance that David Ben-Gurion [Israel’s first Prime Minister] preferred at the time and an unwillingness to antagonize and risk losing the participation of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. There was no other option, because they weren’t willing to allow Arabs full legitimate political representation at the time—not in the form of their own political parties and certainly not in the governing coalition. They never even had an independent Arab party in the governing coalition until a year ago.

I don’t want to say that all of the problems are caused by the failure to write and ratify a constitution, but it is indicative, and it was a reflection of these completely unresolved problems that are essentially a lack of commitment to the idea of civic equality—equality between all citizens—which to this day is not guaranteed by any primary legislation. We have lots of legislation that provides for specific forms of equality, such as gender equality, and workplace equality—very nice things. Most of those equalities depend on the Supreme Court. That is indicative. We’re nearly seventy-five years old, and we still don’t have anything like a regular law that says all citizens in Israel are equal. That problem goes back to the founding of the state. It’s a problem of preferring to have disproportionate power for a minority of religious Israeli Jews because nobody would consider Arabs as equal political partners. It means that you’re giving disproportionate political authority to people who don’t accept specific principles.

When I said “the occupation,” I think I should have spoken more broadly—I didn’t just mean the occupation that began two decades after the founding of the state, but the larger issue of non-Jews who share the land that is Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.

But that’s a good question—would I call Israel within the Green Line an occupation? Probably not. I would say that it is the sovereign territory that was given to Israel during the partition plan. But the problem of democracy was there. [“The Green Line” refers to the country’s borders before 1967, which excluded the West Bank and Gaza.]

Does the current governing coalition represent the future of the right in Israel? In countries all over the world, we’ve seen insurgent, ultranationalist types take over the traditional right-wing or center-right party, as in the United States, or different parties replace the traditional right-wing or center-right party, as in France. All of the energy and voter enthusiasm on the right seems to be for these new groupings or these new faces in the old parties. Is this new type of right-winger the future of the Israeli right?

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